Two of Maine’s largest cities, Bangor and Portland, will celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Monday. They, along with Orono, Starks and Brunswick, will draw attention to the culture of Maine’s Native American tribes, rather than a brutal explorer.
The switch to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which began in Berkeley, California, in 1992, is gaining momentum across the country. Alaska, Vermont, Minnesota and South Dakota celebrate Native Americans rather than Columbus on the second Monday in October. Belfast was the first Maine town to make the change in 2015. Other Maine communities joined in this year; Bar Harbor is considering the change.
While Columbus Day remains a federal holiday, celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an important recognition of the diversity of histories that make up America’s story.
“When we take a traumatic event in history and transform it into a chance for healing and enriching gaps between our communities it is a powerful thing,” said Penobscot Nation Tribal Council member Maulian Dana Smith, who led the effort to change the holiday in Bangor.
The renaming push has been met with backlash from some Italian-Americans, who said the change disrespected their heritage. Others said the cities and states were rewriting history.
If history is our guide, Columbus Day shouldn’t be celebrated in the United States. Christopher Columbus didn’t reach the U.S. During his first voyage to what is today the Americas, he came ashore on the island that is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He later went to what is now Central and South America. He thought he was in Asia.
Other explorers — namely Vikings, such as Leif Erikson — made landfall on North America, in what is now Newfoundland, centuries before Columbus set sail. John Cabot (an Italian explorer whose real name was Giovanni Caboto) came to present-day Newfoundland in 1497 and claimed it for England.
But none of these explorers discovered America or North America, because indigenous people had long been living on the continent.
In his book “A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World,” author Tony Horwitz wonders why so much emphasis is put on Columbus and Plymouth when others had come to the continent first and significant exploration happened between 1492 and 1620. During his study and journeys for the book, Horwitz was surprised to learn the first colony in present-day New England wasn’t at Plymouth (where the rock, by the way, was shockingly unimpressive) but at Fort St. George in Popham (in present-day Phippsburg, Maine), a place he had never heard of.
“History isn’t a sport, where coming first means everything,” he writes. “The outposts at Popham and Cuttyhunk were quickly abandoned, as were most of the early French and Spanish settlements. Plymouth endured, the English prevailed in the contest for the continent, and the Anglo-American Protestants — New Englanders in particular — molded the new nation’s memory.
“And so a creation myth arose, of Pilgrim Fathers seeding a new land with their piety and work ethic. The winners wrote the history,” he continues. “But the losers matter, especially in the history of early America.”
The “losers” were the people who were already here when the explorers arrived; those Columbus called “los Indios,” Italian Giovanni da Verrazzano dubbed “la genta de la terra” and the English called “the naturals.”
Their stories didn’t make the history that the winners wrote, but they too should be honored and appreciated.
Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day.